No one cares whose fault it is

John D. Martin III
September 2, 2017

On Monday, The Daily Tar Heel published a misguided and poorly-reasoned op-ed by way of apologetic for Carol Folt, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Editorial Board. 27 August, 2017. It’s not all Folt's fault. The Daily Tar Heel. The editorial argued that anger over the continued existence of UNC's Confederate monument in McCorkle Place—commonly known as Silent Sam—is misplaced. This opinion is premised on the notion that most of this anger has fallen on the Chancellor because of her "prominent position" and that she should be "respected for her strong leadership" and "dedication" to ensuring UNC's continued smooth operation. The editorial tediously and pedantically explained that because UNC is a massive bureaucracy, it's leader has no real power. This was followed by praise for Chancellor Folt's efforts at getting donors to cough up cash to fill UNC's coffers in the face of dwindling funding from the NC General Assembly.

A Chancellor is not a glorified development officer or ceremonial figurehead. The person presently inhabiting this role leads a major university faced with a very specific set of problems.

The reason that Chancellor Folt is the target of anger and criticism is not "her prominent position at UNC." Leadership roles are necessarily prominent: the word means to be out front of something. People are angry with her right now because she was hired and chose to take on the role of leader in this community.

Leading a community is not a position of glory and great stature, it is a position of humility and service. Most do not treat it like this. Chancellor Folt deserves no respect except as a result of her actions as our leader. And presently she is failing on that front.

Chancellor Folt co-signed a letter with President Spellings and other UNC officials, requesting that the Governor's office do something about Silent Sam. Governor Cooper assented.Ana Irizarry. 21 August, 2017. Cooper gives UNC permission to remove Silent Sam. The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved from This was in the face of Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger's quite insightful proposal of a plan to remove Silent Sam even in the face of standing legislation.Pam Hemminger. 18 August, 2017. A Letter to Chancellor Folt. Town of Chapel Hill, NC. The Governor's response allowed UNC to remove Silent Sam if there was real risk to public safety, but Chancellor Folt and other university officials doubled down in their resistance to removing the statue.John McGowan. 24 August, 2017. UNC Chancellor Carol Folt’s baffling stand on Silent Sam. The News and Observer. And there is real risk to public safety, and in particular, the safety of the campus community.

When white supremacists show up on campus in protest of students conducting a sit-in as they did this weekend, it is a risk to public safety. This argument is met with free speech absolutism by Chancellor Folt and the army of public relations professionals propping her up. But this is not about free speech. White supremacists marching onto UNC's campus should not be waived away as just another demonstration.

The people subscribed to this ideology do not believe in the humanity of people of color. They believe similarly about queer and disabled people. They believe that a portion of the UNC community simply doesn't belong here, and that the best course of action is to remove them, by violence, if necessary.

Just in case anyone thinks that I am not paying attention, I have to acknowledge that Chancellor Folt cited safety concerns ni deciding to deny a request by Richard Spencer, of "punch a nazi" fame, to speak on campus this week. This decision was 1) made at the 11th hour, 2) a token gesture, 3) happened the day before she busted up a peaceful protest against a white supremacist monument. There is no way that this looks good for the university or makes up for the rest of missteps made by its administration in not harshly condemning white supremacists as having no place on a university campus.

Camila Molina. 30 August, 2017. UNC chancellor denies white nationalist Richard Spencer’s request to speak at campus. The News and Observer.

The myth of white supremacy is an incitement to violence against the most vulnerable members of this community. And Silent Sam is the lightning rod for that violence on UNC's campus. They will continue to come. They will continue to threaten violence. And these threats are not idle. They are insidious, seething, and constant. We become accustomed to them, and forget that they are there.

Tiki torch found near #silentsam protest at #unc calls back to #charlottesville violence. Police don't keep us safe, community must respond.

— Daniel Hosterman (@dhosterman) August 27, 2017

Any argument that the sit-in is attracting all of this is the wrong argument. The current sit-in at Silent Sam is exactly the free speech that we should be protecting. The white supremacist response to it is violence. That violence is directly targeting the protesters, and no-so-indirectly targeting the most vulnerable and marginalized people at UNC.

While UNC might be an enormous bureaucracy with competing interests from stakeholders for Chancellor Folt to balance, she can still speak. And she has repeatedly advocated the kind of free speech absolutism which allows white supremacist incitement to violence to go unchecked. She has, at no point, said publicly that she supports the removal of Silent Sam. This omission is deafening at UNC, and she knows that. But in the interest of toadying for the NC GOP and the General Assembly, she remains silent, in the face of such monuments coming down around the country.

That silence tells a lot of us that we do not belong at UNC. We are not a valid part of this community, but white supremacists are. The additional knowledge that Governor Cooper has signed off on the removal of Silent Sam to protect public safety tells us something else. It says that Chancellor Folt does not consider violence directed at marginalized people at UNC to be a threat to public safety.

Think about that.

Thursday morning, as the week rounded to a close, UNC administrators and police busted up the ongoing sit-in at Silent Sam.Jonathan Drew. 31 August, 2017. Protesters vow continued activism after UNC clears sit-in. The Washington Post. Now, keep in mind that this sit-in was completely non-violent, but has been threatened repeatedly with violence. For over a week, students organized material support for the sit-in, gathering food, water, power packs, and temporary shelter around Silent Sam. Administrators and campus police carted all of this away, along with the protesters' signs and banners. The Chancellor had already previously banned tents and confiscated any that had been placed at the site, citing safety concerns. The taking of the signs and banners should be viewed as an unconstitutional stifling of free speech on the part of a government entity.

UNC police just took all the @silentsamsitin tables, posters, and items. Students are staying strong in solidarity. #SilenceSam

— Heather (@HeatherHboro) August 31, 2017

And why did this happen?

The university made no public statement about the motivations for busting up the sit-in. That would give people something to argue against. This tactic allows people to think that the sit-in protesters had done something to provoke this response, which they had not. My reasoned assertion is that Chancellor Folt decided to clear out McCorkle place of protesters because the first home football game of the season was coming up in just a few days and her public relations team did not like the optics of well-supported ongoing sit-in protest happening right in the main path Carolina football fans take from Franklin St. to Kenan Memorial Stadium. It's a fair bet that a great many of those fans are not fans of removing a Confederate monument from UNC's campus. Universities care what their football fans think, because, we are told, their enthusiasm for sport converts readily into donations to the university.Camila Molina and Ray Gronberg. 2017. Countdown to kickoff? UNC cleans up Silent Sam protest. The Herald Sun.

Think about that.

In 2017, the leader of a major university is dismissing the well-being of marginalized members of the community she serves so that football fans would not have to see the ugly history of the university laid bare. And still, she says nothing on the matter.Editorial Board. 1 September, 2017. More souring on Sam, but where is Folt? The News and Observer.

It may not all be Folt's fault. But fault is not the reason that people are angry: inaction is. Given the continued mishandling of this situation, the UNC community should call for the Chancellor's resignation. Then perhaps we can find a Chancellor who will serve this community by putting its safety and well-being before PR concerns.

No one cares whose fault it is - September 2, 2017 - John D. Martin III